The best laid plans …

How do you go about planning a novel? It’s a question an old friend and former colleague of mine asked me recently. He told me it’s been a vexed process for him has this planning stage, and I wonder if that’s perhaps because he’s become inclined to over-think the process. You should think about it of course, but not so much that it paralyses you.

John_Updike_with_Bushes_newUpdike, wise old sage of American letters, suggested that, when writing a novel, you should have a good idea of where you are going to end up. You owe that much to the reader he said. I like that, because it suggests simultaneously that you do have responsibilities when writing, but that you shouldn’t let them become so crippling that you don’t get anything done.

There are many ways to plan a novel though two get talked about most, I suppose we could call them ‘all’ or ‘nothing‘. There are the ‘Planners‘, who work it all out in advance and the ‘Pantsers’ who do it by the seat of their pants.

Both ways of working out what you’re going to put in your book seem a little alien to me as my truth is more organic – a mix of planning and intuition – an evolving process which gets you both where you want to go and where you surprisingly end up. As far as planning goes. I believe you can over-think it – I also believe you can not think about it enough.

I don’t believe you can plan a book until you know what it is – you need to feel your way into it, it seems to me. This involves writing parts of it, before knowing where you are going. A few scenes, a few ideas.

Sooner or later though you realise you are on a journey with no map, and it’s never a bad idea to know which direction you are heading in. So at that stage, it might be a good idea to do some cartography – when you have the general gist of the thing, the essence of it, in your mind.

800px-Watchers_-_geograph_org_uk_-_1804638What does it feel like to have that impression in your mind, or in the pages of your notebook? I once heard that two particular groups of nerd share a curious specialist word which means a lot to them. If you are a plane-spotter or a twitcher, (a bird-watcher), then you might use the word ‘giss,’ pronounced, unfortunately, ‘jiz’. This refers to the way you can glimpse a particular aeroplane or bird in flight out of the corner of your eye for a quarter of a second, and still have a clear idea of what it is. You have got its giss. Some people say the word giss is an acronym which stands for ‘General Impression, Size and Shape.’

That’s what I like to have in my mind before I start planning my novel – the giss.

Once you have it then plan away I say.

I like to do chapter by chapter, scene by scene. As Saint John of Updike said I like to know where I’m eventually going to end up, but that doesn’t mean I do the whole thing, soup to nuts, in one go. So I like to plan for a few chapters in front of me, while at the same time being clear about my final destination.

I like to call this my ‘Underpant Gnomes’ approach to novel planning.

The Underpant Gnomes, as I’m sure you know, appeared in an early edition of South Park. They stole all the kids’ underpants under cover of darkness and, when Cartman and the gang followed them to their underground lair, they found a big Underpant Gnomes manifesto written on the wall. It read:

Phase one – collect underpants

Phase two – ?

Phase three – profit

You really do have to work out the middle ‘?’ section at some point though – otherwise you just end up with a big, useless, pile of underpants.

Oncle_VaniaSome people do drawings and plans and stuff while planning their novel – and I am one of those people. If you saw these at the end, they might seem like some genius piece of pre-planning. In fact they often happen mid-way through, to focus things, clear things up, explain them, realign them.

ErnestHemingwayHere’s something else which might help – I know it helps me: Your whole first draft is planning. If it’s not good – you can make it good. Ernest Hemingway said ‘the first draft of anything is shit’ your job is to make it not shit.

And that, my friends, is my basic approach to novel planning. I start with the underpants, aim for the profit and fill in the route between the two several steps ahead of myself as I go. By the end of course I could show you a full plan for the whole thing and make it look like I did it in advance. But in fact, I did it before, during and after.

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.


32 thoughts on “The best laid plans …

  1. I don’t really have enough experience of writing novels to be able to say what I do as a rule, but your process sounds sort of familiar, Chris. Having come from the film world, I do remember what a script writer told me, which was that a good story for film needs ‘set-up, conflict and resolution’. I haven’t really planned out either of my novels, but I have kept this in mind, and yes, I’ve more or less known what was going to happen in the resolution phase 🙂 I like the ‘planner’ versus ‘pantsers’! I’ll try and remember the GISS principle too…GISS…KISS…love these acronyms! Great Saturday reading as usual. Thanks!

    • Thanks Val – I know there are lots of structured ways of planning, and guides on how to do that – I suppose I just wanted to talk about the way I really find myself doing it, rather than an idealised version of how it ‘should’ be done.

  2. Hey Chris, I’m with you. I pretty much write up the basic draft, and then as i go back through it I write an outline to make sure everything is consistent; timeline, events, and also the character development. Usually you have to revise several times with critique partners. Then read through it and mark anywhere it needs changes or help for that matter. It is a long process but worth it in the end!

    • Yep – there are as many ways of doing it as there are authors I would say but I would venture that most involve a compromise between pre-planning everything and letting it all out in a big stream of consciousness.

  3. When I write, I must have my eye on the conclusion. My whole motivation for writing anything, from an essay to a novel, is to make a certain point–the theme, if you will. For each I have the beginning and the end, but I only do outlining for the backstory so I know how and why my characters got where they are. The actual storyline usually evolves organically. Whether or not that is a method worth imitating remains to be seen.

    • It does sound quite similar to the way me and the underpant gnomes go about it – though I do plan ahead as I go, in order to avoid my novel becoming what Philip Larkin called: ‘a beginning, a muddle and an end’.

  4. I do a bit of all: I always know where it will end, and, as a crime writeer, what the crime was and who did it. The rest just happens organically. I think if I did the micro-planning some writers do (Rowling comes to mind) I’d get bored. If I get bored readers will get bored. Also if you have a rigid structure at the outset, it makes no allowances for those serendipitous moments when the plot drags you in a completely other direction. It doesn’t worry me, coz I have to fences to tie it to.

    • Yes – there’s a balancing act from the need to have something to say in a defined way and the need to go with the flow – it sounds as though a lot of us reach a kind of compromise agreement where we plan a little and run wild a little.

  5. Well, I’ve only written one novel and it wasn’t planned at all. I had an idea and off I went writing it. I think I’m more of a pantser then because I do the same with my short stories. I jot a few notes about characters and I have a general idea of the story. Your advice of planning, but not overthinking the process of writing a novel is smart. Thanks for sharing your words.

    • Thanks Vaan – in the end I think everyone does what works for them, which is the only way it should be. I suppose I plan stories less than novels too – but then there’s less to plan. I still have an idea of where I am going to end up though. I do notes about characters too sometimes – give them little biographies and so on – I do like to have a back story for the big characters in a book – even if it doesn’t make it into the finished book it still informs the way the characters behave.

  6. Thanks, Chris, for an interesting post. I’m working on my 4th novel now, and, despite my vows to “outline my next one,” I just can’t. I couldn’t do it to save my life, in fact. And I’ve finally realized that it’s OK. I go by the theme, writing only what interests or bothers me most. So before I start, I have the characters, the beginning, the conflict, and the ending. But how my characters are going to resolve the conflict I’ve no idea–at first. It comes to me during the process of writing. I may sound presumptuous, but my characters take me on a journey, not vice versa. And that’s what makes writing exciting for me.

    • Whatever works for you I say! I guess there are as many ways as there are writers. It sounds as though you do a reasonable amount of planning though – even though it isn’t an outline – knowing who your characters are, your conflict is etc.

  7. Pingback: How to plan a novel | The Proof Angel

  8. Pingback: What do you mean you didn’t plan your first novel? You did, I know you did. | Writing Fiction

  9. This is such an interesting post! I’m endlessly fascinated by how others approach the mechanics of writing. I’ve recently started work on my second novel and would describe myself as a reluctant pantser – I wish I could plan but I can’t. I’ve adopted a method which has been likened to driving in the dark: I know my final destination but my headlights only illuminate a short distance ahead of me. I travel that short distance and then a further one is lit up, and so on.
    Song of the Sea God looks very interesting – I’ve downloaded a sample. Good luck with it.

    • Thank you Janet – very kind of you to give Sea God a go and I hope it meets with your approval, please let me know how you find it, I would be fascinated to hear.
      Your way of approaching writing sounds a little similar to mine – knowing where you want to end up then finding your way there!

  10. Pingback: Questions answered | songoftheseagod

  11. Reblogged this on AnitaJayDawes and commented:
    very interesting post Chris, not that it helped me very much. I think how a writer writes must be a personal thing, really understood only by them. I always thought writing would be easy. My sister Anita makes it look easy, and I never had a problem when I was younger. So when I started ‘Nine Lives’ I was full of optimism. Six months later and nearly finished first draft, and I have to report that it is the hardest thing I have ever done. What started out as a mystery has developed into some kind of thriller. I have absolutely no control over my characters and it’s scary!

    • I’m sure it will work out alright in the end though Anita. First drafts are just that and you have all the time you need to rewrite and revise to get things how you fell they should be in your mind’s eye.

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